Taking the gunner out of harm’s way provides flexibility in terms of where a weapon is sited, how large in can be and how it is serviced.
The introduction of unmanned or remote weapon stations (RWS) has altered the design parameters available to combat platform designers. Eliminating the human crewmen from the weapon station opens a range of options in configuring the platform to enhance its capabilities and performance. Although the RWS is more generally applied to combat vehicles, its unique attributes are equally relevant to naval craft and even fixed ground sites.
The RWS is built around a weapon, its ammunition storage and feeding, and optics for acquiring and engaging targets. All are integrated into a structure that can be mounted with minimal intrusion into a platform. These can be lighter and more compact even when armouring is considered necessary. Controlling the station and its functions are done remotely. Advances in electro-optics, digital controls and networks, and high definition displays as well as the introduction of stabilisation are resulting in performance of essential tactical tasks equivalent to a manned turret. The RWS is increasingly becoming a preferred solution for light and medium armament. Ground and naval forces in the Asia-Pacific have joined this move with several defence companies in the region taking leading roles in offering unmanned stations.
A primary benefit of the RWS is the increased flexibility that can be provided in armament. In a combat vehicle, the operator can be positioned inside protected by its armour while the roof mounting frees interior space. Eliminating the ‘crew basket’ of a manned station allows a vehicle to carry more infantry or equipment. For a naval vessel the weapon can be placed for optimum coverage without exposing an operator to weather and other adverse conditions. In addition, an unmanned station can, with its lower weight, allow a larger calibre weapon to be employed while staying within the capacity of the platform. Adopting an unmanned, remote weapon can enhance the combat capability and expand mission possibilities of the host platform. The largely bolt-on configuration of the RWS allows it to be relatively easily installed. Thus, the RWS can be incorporated onto existing systems to upgrading their combat effectiveness with minimal impact on the base design. The adaptability of the RWS has been further demonstrated with the added integration of guided anti-armour missiles, such as the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin FGM-148 Javelin. Improved optronics, the availability of high-resolution cameras and the introduction of networking that integrates all on-board sensors are addressing one of the past shortcomings of remote and unmanned stations – their ability to maintain adequate situational awareness. New surveillance and target acquisition packages, such as panoramic sights and full perimeter cameras, have come far in compensating for the reduced heads-out observation possible in a manned turret.
On land or sea
The RWS has seen wide application to combat vehicles and naval craft. Often the configurations are quite similar with those for use on the small craft and patrol boats being ‘marinised’ to resist salt, spray and submerging in rough water. The weapons fit to the RWS range from medium 7.62mm machine guns, to .50 calibre (12.7mm) heavy machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, and 30mm auto-cannon such as the M230 Chain Gun. With a stabilised mount, the operator in a secure position and ability to incorporate both aiming aids and ballistic correction, can provide more accurate and effective fires whatever the platform conditions or movement.
Singapore’s ST Engineering has been a leader in RWS technology for some time. Its Adder family offers stations accepting weapons from 7.62 to 30mm. The Adder Micro RWS specifically addresses the need for a station that can be fitted to smaller platforms with lower payloads. An ST spokesperson stated that the “Micro weighs less than 50kg and can be equipped with a servo-driven twin weapon cradle that can accommodate a variety of small arms. Not only can it traverse a full 360 degrees in the azimuth but elevates at angles of -20 to +60 degrees permitting it to engage targets both close-in and at heights above as in cities and mountains.” The Adder Micro has been successfully demonstrated on the Milrem unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) in challenging field environments.
Another mid-calibre RWS is the ARROW-12 from Asia Security Technology (AST), a Singaporean private enterprise. First shown at the Homeland Security Expo Vietnam 2019, ARROW 12 provides both fully automatic and remote manual modes. With the integration of day and night cameras, laser rangefinder as well as ballistic computer, it offers high stabilisation performance and hit accuracy even in adverse environmental and combat situations. Designed in compliance with military standards MIL-STD-810 it is suited for both land and marine applications.
Malaysia, through the local firm DRB-Hicom Defence Technologies (DefTech), manufactures its AV8 wheeled combat vehicle through a collaboration with Turkey’s FNSS. One of the AV8 infantry carrier variants mounts a 12.7mm RWS. In 2016, a local Malaysia firm DETRAC, part of the Destini Group, was also reported to be in the final stages of developing such a RWS capable of mounting either the 12.7 or a 40mm AGL which has been displayed.
Republic of Korea’s Hanwha Defense has its own line of RWS. An electric drive RWS fitted with the .50 K6 machine gun and 40mm K4 AGL with elevation from -20 to 60 degrees was developed for the AAV7A1 amphibious assault vehicle. Being stabilised in two axis with roll compensation with a day camera, thermal night camera, integrated laser rangefinder and automatic target tracker it was specifically optimised to deliver suppressive fire during a beach assault.
Hanwha’s own RWS designs have primarily focused on mounting options for the K6 and K4 heavy machine guns and AGLs alone or in combination with advanced optronics for combat vehicle and naval craft. It is noteworthy that Hanwha’s Redback candidate for the Australian Force 400 Infantry Combat Vehicle is to be integrated an unmanned weapon station and an RWS built by Australia’s EOS Defence Systems. In addition, the Republic of Korea Army has announced an upgrade to its K1A2 main battle tanks including installation of a turret roof RWS. Hanwha Defense Systems is also currently working with AVP Engineering in Malaysia to develop the Tigon 6×6 armoured combat vehicle. Three types of remote-controlled/unmanned weapon station possibilities are offered including a 12.7mm machine gun, a 30mm automatic gun or a 90mm gun. Tigon configurations were displayed at DSA 2018 in Kuala Lumpur.
The Philippine Navy (PN), the Department of Science and Technology’s Metals Industry Research and Development Centre, and the Mechatronics and Robotics Society of the Philippines have been collaborating on the developing of a RWS. This project ‘Building a Universal Mount for Heavy-Barrel Automated Weapon Integration’ (BUHAWI) is part of the broader Self-Reliance Defense Posture Programme (SRDP) intended to enhance domestic defence participation. A prototype mounting the M2 .50 machine gun was demonstrated in January 2020. It is intended for potential use on warships and patrol vessels. The Philippine Army has also adopted the RWS. Since 2018 it issued contracts to Israel’s Elbit Systems for upgrades to its M113A1 armoured personnel carriers. One involved installing Elbit’s Dragon 12.7mm RWS plus its Combat NG Battlefield Management System (BMS) while a second effort mounted its UT-25 unmanned station carrying a 25mm Bushmaster onto the vehicles.
Australia’s Electro Optic Systems (EOS) has emerged as one of the more innovative RWS developers in the Asian-Pacific region. Its offering ranges from the R400S-Mk2 with a 30mm ATK M230 cannon and the Rada Radar aCHR compact all-threat air surveillance radar system intended for the counter-UAS role to its lightweight R200 7.72mm machine gun system. The latter is being delivered to the Australian Army for its Hawkei and Bushmaster vehicles. More recently EOS debuted its R800, the next generation RWS. An EOS spokesperson explained that “R800 integrates advanced surveillance capabilities including battlefield sector scanning with up to 200 programmable target references allowing rapid engagement of targets directly from surveillance mode. First-round hit probability assured by a ballistic solution that considers weapons, ammunition, range, atmospherics, vehicle attitude and target motion.” In addition, EOS is teamed exclusively with Hanwha Defence Australia offering its T2000 turret for Hanwha “Redback” IFV.
The People’s Republic of China’s NORINCO Naval RWS line is offered for patrol boat applications providing a fully stabilised all-electric powered platform with -5 to +60 degree elevation in a 260kg package. It is suited for fitting machine guns from 7.62 to 14.5mm or automatic grenade launchers. The company is also offering its UW4A RWS armed with a 30mm dual-feed cannon and a 7.62mm co-axial machine gun, although it appears to be primarily for export. It carries 120 ready rounds of 30mm ammunition and 200 rounds of 7.62mm. As common with many RWS of similar design once the ready-use rounds have been expended the crew must expose themselves to reload. It’s sighting package includes a day sight, a colour CCD camera, an uncooled thermal imager, and a laser rangefinder. The latter is increasing included especially with larger calibre weapons.
Unmanned Weapon Stations
The Unmanned Weapon Station (UWS) differs from the RWS primarily in its configuration. Whereas the RWS as the weapons and sighting optics most often mounted from a pedestal or cradle, the UWS may replicate a traditional turret layout. In it, however, the crew is positioned separately with only the gun, optics, and ammunition in the turret. All controls are remote. The approach is favoured for heavier, higher performance guns such as the Northrop-Orbital ATK Mk44/XM813 30mm, Oerlikon 35mm, and Bofors 40mm auto-cannon. The approach allows for a large calibre yet provides a lighter or compact station that can be fit to lighter vehicles including allowing up-gunning existing chassis.
One of the first introductions of the UWS to a major combat vehicle was in the Singapore Armed Forces Hunter Next Generation Fighting Vehicle (NGFV). The Mk44 30mm armed system places the commander, gunner and driver side-by-side in the chassis. They rely on an array of networked multi-spectrum panoramic, perimeter, and gun mantle cameras to provide situational awareness, surveillance and targeting. The Army selected a customised Raphael Samson Mk II station which is integrated by ST Engineering. Hunter is expected to enter service in 2021.
The RWS has found a new application performing the role of a sentry post in perimeter or border security. One of the leading providers of systems for this role is the Republic of Korea’s DoDAAM. Its Super aEgis II, introduced in 2010, is typically installed on a tower overlooking the area to be covered. According to CEO, Myung Kwang Chang, it is currently used on the Korean DMZ and in the Middle East, including United Arab Emirates air bases, the Royal Palace in Abu Dhabi, in Qatar and to protect power plants, pipelines and military airbases around the world. The weapon mount itself uses a .50 heavy machine gun with day and thermal cameras. Its principal difference is that the system is provided with image processing intended to detect, acquire, track, identify, and engage any intrusion into its area of coverage. Although in current applications firing is initiated by a human; DoDAAM engineers suggest that the system can act entirely autonomously. As Chang points out: “Our weapons don’t sleep, like humans must. They can see in the dark, like humans can’t.” It could be viewed as the ideal sentry.
The performance of RWS and UWS, facilitated by advances in associated enabling technologies, are approaching that of the traditional manned station. In cases of naval RWS, although they more costly, an accurate engagement at maximum ranges appears better than with a manned gun. On a combat vehicle they open new armament options and expanded capabilities. Further improvements in situational awareness will only make these capabilities more appealing in the future.